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Animals as Caregivers 

By Frances Maguire Paist

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“It’s funny how dogs and cats know the insides of folks better than other folks do, isn’t it?” With those words written in 1912, Pollyanna author Eleanor Porter foreshadowed what many of our nation’s leading long-term care facilities have learned only recently, that animals hold the one of the keys to graceful aging.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be until 79 years later, in 1991, that Geriatrician Dr. William Thomas would formulate the Eden Alternative, a long-term nursing care approach designed with the idea of home sweet home in mind. Dr. Thomas countered the long-held belief that disease, disability and decline are the purview of the older generation, stating instead that the real problems for our elders are loneliness, helplessness and boredom, all of which lead to spiritual decay. In New York’s Chase Memorial Nursing Home where he piloted his program by introducing “close and continuing contact with plants, animals and children,” "the mortality rate (decreased) by more than 15%, medication use … declined significantly, nurse aide turnover dropped by 26% and residents' loneliness, helplessness and boredom … yielded to companionship, self-sufficiency and … a sense of joy." Say Eden Alternative founders, “We must teach ourselves to see (long-term care) environments as habitats for human beings rather than facilities for the frail and elderly. We must learn what Mother Nature has to teach us about the creation of vibrant, vigorous habitats. The Eden Alternative™ shows us how companion animals, the opportunity to give meaningful care to other living creatures, and the variety and spontaneity that mark an enlivened environment can succeed where pills and therapies fail.”

In addition to the Eden Alternative, there is research aplenty substantiating the place and importance of animals in long-term care facilities. Geriatric researchers from the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, published a study showing that elderly people who own pets are more active than those who do not. They hypothesized that the care-giving aspect of pet ownership gives owners purpose and responsibility and makes them more active day-to-day. Additionally, they said pet ownership helps counter social isolation and that for those elders who do not have a strong network of friends and family but who are pet owners, inevitable life crises are handled more effectively.

There are many ways to enjoy pets in the wide variety of senior facilities available today. Many permit individual pet ownership. Some facilities actually have “house” pets. For those who can’t or choose not to own their own pet, there are organizations like Therapy Dogs International and Pets On Wheels who will bring pets in for visits. Carefully selected animals, accompanied by their owners, visit a wide range of facilities including nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The result? Great happiness, contentment and sometimes even a rekindling of childhood memories from otherwise reticent elders. When an animal first appears on the scene at a long-term care facility, surprise is quickly replaced by smiles, and the animals respond with great affection and excitement. Indeed, everyone benefits! Whether it’s pet therapy or just a friendly visit, sharing animals with our seniors has proven to be a wonderful mechanism of healing and hope.

Let’s face it. There’s just something about that furry paw on your leg or the soulful eyes of a much-loved dog. A 1999 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed independent seniors with pets tend to have better physical health and mental wellbeing, are more active and better handlers of stress. “Exactly why?” you may ask. Consider the routines of pet ownership. The little critters are dependent, after all, and must be fed, groomed and exercised. It is in the accomplishment of these duties, say experts, that our elders are kept busy, entertained and fulfilled, their cardiovascular systems and limbs benefiting in real ways that may help prolong life, provide purpose and engender satisfaction. It’s a fact that simply petting animals can lead to decreased heart rate, temperature and blood pressure. And take it from a pet lover, talking to those four-legged creatures is sometimes better than an involved conversation with your best friend. Animals listen, provide a warm, furry place to ponder and don’t talk back. Research has shown that pets counter the social isolation so many of our seniors suffer by simply being there for their owners. Daily interaction with pets can counter depression, and the day-to-day demands of pet ownership provide purpose and a reason to get up each day. Finally, pets in their own inimitable way encourage routine (after all, groceries must be purchased, litter boxes cleaned and walks taken) and in this way, elderly owners must adhere to a regular routine which in turn means predictable meal times and bed times, essential components of a life well lived.

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